We were lucky to catch up with Chef Natalie Julien recently and have shared our conversation below.
Chef Natalie, thanks for taking the time to share your stories with us today To kick things off, we’d love to hear about things you or your brand do that diverge from the industry standard.
Our mission with SheZen Mono Hot Pot wasn’t so much to change industry standards, as it was to apply them in a different way. As a corporate executive chef, health protocol, safe food service, and overall attention to cleanliness detail was a discipline that one should strive for everyday as a professional. However, even though these skills are assumed to be the norm for any food establishment you enter every day, the truth is, they are not. Safe business practices in the food industry are shockingly ignored. At some point it always comes down to poor management, someone stopped paying attention at the wheel, and in result, quality, safety, and overall moral is negatively affected.
I consider myself a people’s chef. I work hard for those that work hard for us, and in return, they work hard for me. Its mutual respect and admiration. Together we win, divided we fall. I have taken the experiences from the corporate world both positive and negative to try and create a business environment that maximizes productivity and ensures the highest quality product and services are being presented to our clients.
As always, we appreciate you sharing your insights and we’ve got a few more questions for you, but before we get to all of that can you take a minute to introduce yourself and give our readers some of your background and context?
My name is Natalie Julien and I am a corporate Executive Chef. I created my own company SheZen Mono Hot Pot as a direct result of the impact Covid had on the catering and event industry. Prior to Covid, I operated a catering business working with the usual clients of wedding, birthdays, baby showers, etc.. To be honest, that industry segment has more negatives than positives and I was looking for other business opportunities within the culinary industry.
As difficult as Covid was, it was the catalyst needed to create this current business model. SheZen Mono Hot Pot is a service that brings an authentic Hot Pot and Yakiniku (grilled meat) dining experience to our clients homes. We prepare all fresh ingredients from vegetables, noodles, proteins, and dumplings and bring them directly to the client. We set everything up, walk all the guests through the sauces, ingredients, how to customize their broth, and answer any questions. Once the guests are comfortable, we leave for everyone to enjoy. When finished, we return to clean up like we were never there. We even package and label any unused items for the client to enjoy at a later date.
We started this business near the end of the pandemic, however, people were still reluctant to going out and being around large groups. I believe the urge to be social and around your friends once again, was stronger than ever. A year and a half of DoorDash and Uber Eats was enough. Our business model allowed clients to gather small groups of friends and have a fun and interactive dining experience in the safety and comfort of their own home.
It’s funny because they always say, your best ideas are right in front of you. This concept was something my family and friends had done for years when we had dinner parties and we always talked about what a good idea it was. But like a lot of good ideas, life gets in the way and your focus is other places. It took the drastic shift in the culinary climate to be the spark that was needed to bring this idea to life, and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Can you tell us about a time you’ve had to pivot?
The entire existence of SheZen Mono Hot Pot was a pivot from our original business being a catering company. Like most restaurants, bars, and events in general, Covid put an immediate halt to all operations. We found ourselves sitting on large amounts of equipment and inventory, all needed to operate a successful catering company, with no idea when we could use it again. We were already contemplating a new direction outside the catering business before the pandemic. The catering industry has more challenges than most people realize. Transportation, storage, and workspace, are all factors that affect your bottom line. During the busy season, you get swept up in finishing one job and on to the next, you don’t get a second to stop and really look at everything with clear focus and objective opinions. That involuntary stop to life gave us a chance to refocus and address certain business issues and try to find smart solutions. The goal was to scale down inventory, simplify the process, and increase margins.
Food delivery services were thriving out of necessity, so how could we capitalize on this trend but still remain authentic in our culinary vision and service. Hot Pot events were a product that we had already tried on family and friends to much success, we owned all the necessary equipment, and my background heritage of growing up in a Japanese household that used to gather the family around a Shabu Shabu (Japanese version of Hot Pot) dinner allowed me to bring an authenticity to the business that’s not easy to replicate. Once you look at all this together, it was a no brainer.
We’d love to hear the story of how you built up your social media audience?
Our foundation of SheZen Mono Hot Pot was built by connecting to our local audience via Instagram. We utilize other social media platforms, but Instagram is great for anything and everything food related. What we didn’t know at first, was how incredible the foodie scene was in Orlando. More specifically, the community of foodies that come together to support food related businesses. Many of these social media influencers in town have an enormous following and fans that rely on them to tell them about what the next great food experience is. When we started, we slowly found the more popular influencers and would see in their bio, “DM for Collab”. We had no idea what this meant so we started asking. We were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support we started to receive in their interest to try our product. In response to this, we set up our first Social Media influencer Hot Pot tasting event. We invited 25 of the top media and influencers in town for an exclusive dinner to showcase what we had to offer. It doesn’t hurt either offering a free dinner to bring people out.
The cost for us was venue rental and food, in addition to our time and labor. It was a minor investment to fill the room with the city’s top food influencers and let them share their experience and opinion with their followers. As they ate they were shooting professional videos and immediately posting and tagging. It was amazing watching in real time the comments come in about how excited strangers were to know more about us and how to book us. In addition, we hired our own director to shoot the event, and we took that footage and edited short 30 second clips to use as our own content, and that one event gave us enough amazing video content to use for the next month or so. This event was a resounding success. A few months later we did another and focused on the remaining media and influencers that we were not able to get at the first event. The formula absolutely works. If your in a position to invite a group of influencers in your particular field of business together at one time and let them experience your product, do it. It’s a win win. They need the content for their audience and you need the credibility that comes from the trust of their followers.